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CEO pay in India: "Vulgar and indecent"

What's Hindi for fat cat?

Bharti Chief Executive Manoj Kohli, IBM General Manager for Communications Sector Gary Cohen, Ericsson Chief Executive Officer and President Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of Bharti Airtel Ltd. Sunil Mittal, Chairman of Singtel Chumpol NaLamlieng and Bharti Enterprises Vice Chairman and Managing Director Rajan Bharti Mittal attend a news conference in New Delhi, May 15, 2009. (Vijay Mathur/Reuters)

BANGALORE, India — India’s politicians are arrayed against the country’s corporate class in a battle over excessive executive compensation, a subject that has recently become extremely sensitive across the globe.

Two top members of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet have cautioned Indian corporations to curb what is deemed "vulgar" pay packages of their executives.

Corporate Affairs minister Salman Khurshed and the Deputy Chairman of India’s Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia called on the leaders of India’s rising economy to practice austerity. “Indecent CEO salaries have become a global cause of worry,” Ahluwalia said.

The call has come at a time when investors in the United States and elsewhere are outraged over the multi-million dollar bonuses and fat pay checks of corporate executives.

The subject has become extra sticky since the financial carnage on Wall Street last year and the resulting global economic turmoil.

A proposal to limit salaries and perks of corporate executives came up for discussion at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh last month.

In India, recently buffeted by a severe drought and devastating floods in addition to the economic downturn, the Congress Party-led Manmohan Singh government has adopted austerity as its governance mantra.

Ministers and bureaucrats have been directed to curtail government spending on frills such as business class travel and pricey banquets. So the government now hopes that Indian corporations will follow suit.

Trade unions have jumped into the debate, demanding that the government cap huge CEO pay deals. “The government should bring a strict law to deal with this problem. Self-regulation is no remedy,” said Mohammed Amin, general secretary of the communist-party affiliated union CITU.

Like their global peers, India’s CEOs have fared well despite the economic downturn. Their compensation packages have soared in the last year. Its fast-growing companies are helping India maintain its position as the second speediest economy in the world after China.

Now irate corporate executives are questioning the government’s right to regulate salaries in the private sector.